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Doing It By Themselves

Little is known about single fathers—they are largely invisible to the public eye. Harald Breiding-Buss gives a glimpse of insight into the lives of those with young children.

“Single parent”—the image that perhaps springs to mind is a woman with one or two or three little kids doing everything by herself, with no support from anywhere and perhaps even feeling cornered by ambivalent social attitudes.

However, if you cock your ears a bit eavesdropping on your better half’s coffee group or listen to some of your mates at work or at play, some of the comments are much less sympathetic.

After all, isn’t there always a single mum in the neighbourhood that our own brat is making friends with, who sleeps till lunch every day and, while awake, swears a lot, not to mention the house that is a complete mess?

What’s more, moves are afoot to start avoiding the word “single parent” altogether as in so many, maybe most, modern situations it does not capture the situation from a child’s point of view, which may very well be bonded strongly to both parents even though they do not live together, and even spend equal time with either.

Your modern single mum may have rather a lot more child-free time at her disposal than your average partnered mum.

But all these scenarios have one thing in common: ‘single parent’ still equates with ‘single mum’. Deteriorating as the image of single mothers as a group may be, at least there is an image. Their male counterparts have none.

By comparison, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of ‘single fatherhood’ in the western world: around 15%. No New Zealand survey captures adequately the true living situation of individual children, so such statistics do not tell us how many of these are men in isolated situations with little support from the mother of the child, or anyone else for that matter.

What is clear is that a child is the more likely to live predominantly with the father the older it is, and the child is also more likely to be a boy.

However, a substantial proportion of parents the Father & Child Trust deals with each year are solo men taking care of pre-schoolers.

It comes with the nature of the Trust’s work that we tend to see the problematic side of parenthood; however there are some unsettling common patterns with single dads that may be representative of the wider picture: Solo fathers with pre-schoolers do tend to parent with no or very little support from the mother of the child.

This is because so often sole fatherhood is a result of parenting failure by the mother: drug or alcohol addictions, mental illness or a history of uncontrolled violent outbursts are some of the more common situations.

Solo fathers with pre-schoolers are often deeply insecure about their own adequacy as parents, and depression is rampant amongst them. Some feel they lack the ‘motherly instinct’.

They are often socially very isolated—partly because of their own insecurities, but also because they have missed out on the networking sponsored by midwives and nurses in the early months.

They are often besieged by social workers or Family Court lawyers, who inherently mistrust a man to make a good job of it, especially when the child is a girl. It doesn’t help that many solo fathers come with a history of their own.

Their isolation is sometimes a result of an attempt to avoid drawing attention, because they have not come to expect support from the health or social system, but sometimes injustice.

There seems to be no age pattern in the solo fathers coming to Father & Child Trust’s attention. Since the start of the Teenage Fathers Project we see more men under 25, or even 20, in this situation, but they are just as likely to be over 35.

Neil (38), for example, became a single dad after his relationship with his ex broke up, who is an alcoholic and has various mental disorders. His daughter was just over two at the time and Neil did not think he was prepared for it.

“I always thought women can relate better to little children. They have this maternal instinct which tells them what to do.” It became obvious, however, that whatever maternal instinct may be present was not enough.

“One day I realised that I simply do not have a choice”, he says. “There is no-one else to look after her. I may not be very good at it, but that is the only thing on offer”.

Neil tends to blame himself for parenting problems with his daughter, Helena. To an outsider the two seem to have a rather normal parent-child bond. Helena, now 4, smiles a lot, comes to dad for spontaneous hugs, and shows just the right amount of caution and curiousity towards people she doesn’t know.

The supervisors at her crèche are rather impressed with her social skill, says Neil. But he thinks that is just her personality, and nothing he can take credit for.

He readily blames himself when Helena pops in and out of her bed in the evening, when she is supposed to sleep (and dad really wants his break), making all sorts of excuses: she needs to put dolly to bed; needs to go to the toilet; really needs to tell dad something.

Her facial expressions are so typically pretend-serious for this age that for an observer it is hard not to laugh. Neil, however, thinks this is because he simply doesn’t know how to do it. Unlike a woman, he has to learn it all.

Helena’s nighttime behaviour is certainly a parenting issue, but a very common one. Incidentally the very same behaviour would also show a professional that Helena is well bonded—she feels safe enough to challenge limits and is looking for her father’s guidance at the same time. Most people would recognise it as typical (although annoying) pre-schooler behaviour. So why doesn’t Neil?

This is where isolation comes in. Without social interactions with other parents on a very regular basis, none of us would know what is and isn’t normal. Occasionally we ask someone who is “in the know”, but Neil is unsure whether any advice from a woman (like a crèche supervisor) would also apply to his situation as a sole father.

Terry (25), who looks after his 3 year old son and featured in a previous issue of Father & Child, is not lacking in parenting confidence on the outside. In fact, his son, Zakai, is doing rather well. His language skills were rather advanced at an early age, which is not so common in boys.

This was all the more remarkable, because language skills can sometimes be a concern for children of solo dads. Men tend to talk only when there is a reason, a purpose to talk about—that makes for sometimes rather dull conversation, but can also deprive a toddler of vital language input.

Terry, too, made the point just how much isolation from other fathers in similar situations cuts into your parenting confidence. In a public meeting promoting the Trust’s Teenage Fathers Project he said that, for him, such support had come “at a crucial time”, and has had a huge impact on his parenting.

Like Neil, Terry took on the fulltime carer job, because he thought there was no other option for his son.
Several solo fathers have described this particular decision as ‘gut-wrenching’. While a woman receives rather a lot of social conditioning on how dependent her child is on her for everyday care, such conditioning is entirely absent for men.

Fathers are supposed to provide the framework in which the mother can do her job. That they may be required to replace the mother in this role is a thought that very often takes a rather long time to surface.
In fact, many single fathers with young children feel they are in a moral dilemma: to protect their children they have to act against the mother, who usually does not want to relinquish that role.

But taking a baby or young child away from the mother is one of the things our society usually despises as a particularly nasty crime. Under what circumstances would we prefer an isolated and inexperienced father to look after a baby, rather than a mother, however handicapped, who is usually rather well supported by an ever-growing post-natal support system?

It is because this decision is so difficult that solo fathers often emerge from particularly messy situations. More often than not, they have actually waited too long before they acted. More often than not, they had to fight a system along the way that kept claiming the mother is now “cured” from her problems and the child can be returned.

Unlike a non-custodial father, a non-custodial mother keeps receiving support aimed at assisting her to become a capable parent. The custodial father, the child’s day-to-day caregiver to which the child will have formed a primary attachment, receives a fraction of this—or nothing at all.

Many single fathers come with an unpleasant history themselves. Where mothers fail as parents, because they have come too close to the drug scene or other nasty subcultures, the father of their child is likely to be made of the same mould, and to have cruised same sections of society. Often it shows: deep scars, heavy anti-social tattoos, and a sense of fashion that is at best…unusual.

But the people supporting parents of young babies are overwhelmingly female. Entering the house of a person like this, especially if there is a known history of violence, is usually way outside the safety standards accepted in this profession. While individual workers may show great sympathy for a single dad at the rougher and of the spectrum, suspicion always remains.

Where visits happen, solo dads often feel spied upon rather than supported—with good reason. ‘Spying’, or ‘monitoring a child’s safety’, is in the job description of just about every health or social professional, be it midwife, Plunket nurse or social worker.

Any of them can make a notification to Child Youth and Family about concerns, whether real or speculative, which then puts the parent at the mercy of the CYF social worker’s assessment of the situation.

Some single dads have had rather bad experiences from such encounters. To them, asking for support carries a danger to their child.

The continuing ignorance towards single fathers is having some very real impacts on a significant number of children. Time to start recognizing that they’re a fact.

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